Given that roasts represent something of a cultural dinosaur, Comedy Central is perhaps to be forgiven for engaging in blatant demographic pandering, as it did by devoting its latest litany of one-liners to Justin Bieber. For Bieber, of course, the showcase represented an opportunity to show off a lighter side given his public-relations woes, while assembling a roster of comics and celebrities seemingly intended to make those viewing at home feel lightheaded even without assistance from mood-altering drugs.
Shaquille O’Neal? Martha Stewart? Ludacris and Snoop Dogg? It was almost enough to make one yearn for the comedy stylings of Jeff Ross.
Kevin Hart served as roastmaster, kicking off the festivities after a taped piece devoted to high- and lowlights from Bieber’s career, including his various legal troubles. And while jokes about Paul Walker were omitted from the broadcast due to issues of taste, the promotional aspect of that decision seems obvious in light of all the other insensitive material that got in, including Chris D’Elia’s references to ISIS beheading videos and other riffs about “Saturday Night Live’s” Pete Davidson losing his father on Sept. 11.
The main problem with the modern roasts, like the old ones, is the repetition that ensues, especially from the non-comics, who tend to hit the same gags over and over.
So while it might be funny once, or even three times, by about halfway through the two-hour telecast the parade of jokes devoted to various panelists had become numbing. OK, we get it, Kevin Hart is short; Martha Stewart is old (and has been in prison!); Shaq is very, very big; and Bieber has been on “Ellen” many times, which is apparently funny because, you know, she’s a lesbian.
Granted, even with the best of targets, the roasts remain a limited construct. About all one learned from the evening devoted to William Shatner, for example, was that the former “Star Trek” star is overweight, and fellow cast member George Takei is gay.
Yet while personalities like Shatner and Charlie Sheen offered a long career to lampoon, even with all his bad-boy behavior feasting on Bieber is a rather thin gruel. Moreover, Bieber looked only fitfully comfortable throughout the festivities, trying not to grimace as Hannibal Buress talked about how much he dislikes Bieber’s music before getting to the kicker by saying, “I hate your music more than Bill Cosby hates my comedy.”
The final roaster was Hart’s “Get Hard” co-star, Will Ferrell, in his Ron Burgundy role. That gave way to Bieber, who managed to read the jokes written for him passably, if a bit stiffly, before delivering a more heartfelt message — and even an apology for his missteps.
Of course, the roasts have become big business for Comedy Central, lending themselves to clips that can be used to tease the event and go viral. Small wonder the network has sought to milk the evening, including the obligatory preshow.
“You are the King Joffrey of pop,” Ross told Bieber, alluding to “Game of Thrones.”
If so, after an evening that felt like a very long winter, spring can’t come soon enough.